- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004


A highway spending bill seen as a major job creator and a top legislative priority this year came under threat of a presidential veto, with the administration saying yesterday that it won’t accept new taxes or budgetary maneuvers to pay for it.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta and Treasury Secretary John W. Snow said they would advise the president to veto the bill if it contained an increase in gasoline or other federal taxes.

Their letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist came a day after the president released his budget, which predicts record budget deficits and imposes new spending restraints on Congress, and a day after the Senate began debate on the legislation.

The administration, in its budget proposal, recommended spending $256 billion over the next six years to finance highway building and mass transit improvements.

The Senate is backing a $318 billion package that is in part funded by various shifts in the budget aimed at putting more money into the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for highway construction. Among the suggestions are shifting the cost of gasohol subsidies from the trust fund to the general Treasury fund.

Mr. Frist, Tennessee Republican, in opening debate on the legislation Monday, stressed the need for passing the measure, which he said would create 2 million jobs as well as improve safety and quality of life for Americans using a deteriorating highway system.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which must answer the demands of lawmakers seeking highway money for their districts, has been more ambitious, recommending $375 billion over six years. Committee Chairman Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican, supports an increase in the federal gasoline tax, now at 18.4 cents a gallon.

But Mr. Young has met opposition from the administration as well as Republican leaders averse to any tax increases.

Mr. Snow and Mr. Mineta, in their letter, said that in addition to opposing a gas-tax increase, they were against any infrastructure spending funded through bonding or other mechanisms that concealed the true cost to taxpayers. They said spending also must be financed through the trust fund and not the general Treasury fund.

“If a surface transportation reauthorization bill that breached any of these three principles were presented to the president, his senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill,” they wrote.

Debate on the bill was interrupted yesterday by the discovery of powder in Mr. Frist’s mailroom that tested positive for the poison ricin. Capitol Police closed all three Senate office buildings while they investigated the substance.

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